Justin released his debut novel, Carpet Diem, in 2015. It became a best-seller and won a 2018 Audie award. Since then he has been writing full time, publishing The Lost War, first book in the Eidyn Trilogy earlier this year.
I was excited to have the opportunity to interview Justin with The Lost War being perhaps my favourite book of the year, and he didn’t let me down! So without further ado, the interview itself:
1. When writing the Lost War, what did you find most difficult and what about the writing process came most naturally?
That’s an interesting question. I felt like I had to work hard at worldbuilding, characterisation and description, whereas plot and dialogue tend to be the things that come naturally to me. What I’ve found really interesting since the book came out is that the things that are getting a lot of love are the worldbuilding and characters, so I guess the hard work was worth it!
2. Do you have the full Eidyn trilogy planned out, is there a clear plan for the remaining 2 books or is it feasible that the series could actually extend beyond that?
It’s definitely a complete story in a trilogy. I know the arc of book two and I know where book 3 starts and ends. It’s not impossible I would later write more books in the world of Eidyn, but only if a story comes to me that I want to tell. At the moment, I’m not planning to.
3. You’ve already written fantasy before, albeit as a comedy in Carpet Diem. Do you think fantasy is a genre you’ll stick to in the future and if so, what sub-genre is next?
I won’t necessarily stick to it, but the immediate plans are pretty fantasy based. After I finish the sequel to Carpet Diem, and then the second and third books of Eidyn, I have three books competing for what to write next. One is an urban fantasy thriller with vampires and magic, based on a comic script and then TV script I wrote a while ago. Another is a sort of urban fantasy murder mystery with old gods. And the third is a futuristic superhero sci-fi political thriller. When it comes to it, I’ll write the one that I’m most excited about!
4. Speaking of writing comedy, do you follow a formula, taking into account what you think people will find funny, or do you write to your own sense of humour and hope it appeals?
Very much my own sense of humour. I’ve tried to distil the essence of writing comedy down for things like panels at cons, and I find it really hard. Essentially, it’s about surprising people, focusing on unexpected details, usurping expectations… but none of that actually tells you how to do it! And comedy is so subjective, as the Carpet Diem reviews show. One person’s side-splitting is another person’s wet fish.
5. Do current international/UK politics influence your work and the things you find you’re writing about?
Hugely. I’m very engaged with politics (as my Twitter feed will tell you) and I find the state of politics utterly infuriating and demoralising just now. It’s difficult to say too much without giving away spoilers, but I think it would be difficult for anyone to read my books and not come away with some idea of my political and ideological beliefs. Certainly, politics and world affairs were a very large influence on The Lost War.
6. Writing gives you a platform to put your point of view across to your readers. Do you see the possibility of having influence as a writer an opportunity for good or something to be wary of?
I’d be delighted to think I could influence someone for the better. I’m very aware, as a parent, of the responsibility that comes with having the ability to affect how someone else sees a topic, but I think some of the most effective catalysts for world change have often been art and specifically literature. Look at books like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. These things have maybe never been more salient and relevant than they are now. I think it’s important that artists use their media to say important things. I also think the most interesting art has something to say. I’d include something like Black Mirror in that. That’s a programme that really explores our relationship with technology and the future in a way that is both entertaining and chilling. Sometimes we need to see things out of context to really see them in it.
7. Let’s touch on gender in The Lost War. In my review I commended the fact that the characters in your book aren’t defined by their gender; they’re human beings with strengths and weaknesses and they all play equally influential roles in the story. Samily, the White Thorn warrior was one of my favourites; was it important to you that her character was more nuanced and didn’t follow the cold, unforgiving badass template?
I really appreciated that you picked up on this in your review. Yes, it’s important, and not just because she’s a female character – but because she’s a character. All of the characters should be well-rounded and some of them should be women. I don’t know if you’re aware of the Bechdel Test, which is the absolute bare minimum a book or movie or whatever should pass. It asks that two named female characters speak to each other about something other than a man. Now, that’s an embarrassingly low bar, and yet an even more embarrassingly low number of stories have cleared it throughout history. I think it will be nice when we get to the point where writing well-rounded women is the bare minimum expectation. We just need to write good characters, and some of them have to be women. I look forward to the day that’s the norm and we don’t need to have these conversations anymore. But for now, we do, and I think it’s important to have them. Incidentally, Samily is one of my favourite characters, too. She’s a lot of fun to write.
8. What’s the last book you read that made you feel really passionate or emotional?
I think probably The Wise Man’s Fear. I only discovered Patrick Rothfuss last year, so I’m very late to the game, but I adored The Name of the Wind. I tried to hold off on reading The Wise Man’s Fear, but I gave in earlier this year – not least because my wife bought it and read it before me! It’s a beautiful, atmospheric piece of writing and the characterisation in there is incredible. Kvothe feels like an old mate I haven’t seen in a while and I’m looking forward to seeing him again. That kind of writing is just a treat to experience.
9. There are clear Scottish influences in your work, and you’ve spoken before about Edinburgh specifically being a city that you had in your thoughts writing The Lost War. What would you tell people who’ve never been about what makes it such a special place?
The beautiful city of Edinburgh (above)
Edinburgh is a city that manages to tread the line between modern and ancient. We have a dozen festivals a year encompassing theatre, comedy, TV, film, literature, science and just a damn fine Hogmanay party. We have a great, multicultural array of restaurants and bars. We have theatres, cinemas – in short, I guess we have a rich cultural life. But beside that we have the medieval old town around Edinburgh Castle, with grisly old folk tales and haunted vaults. There’s a massive park built on top of plague pits. We have a 350 million-year-old dormant volcano in the middle of the city. There’s so much history here too, which makes it feel like there’s always something to explore. And on top of all that, it just feels very safe. I’ve moved away from Edinburgh a few times for different reasons, but I’ve always come back, because it’s home.
10. What are you working on now/next?
Currently I Don’t Like Mundanes, the sequel to Carpet Diem, and after that will be the second Eidyn book, which has the working title The Insurgent King, but that might change by the time it comes out – we’ll see!
11. When you one day look back on your career, what will success mean to you?
That’s a complex question. If I can manage to make a long career out of writing, that will be amazing and I’ll feel very lucky to have done it, so that is definitely success. Beyond that, if I can produce a number of books that are well-loved by readers, that would also make me very happy. If you wanted to throw in a Hugo or an Oscar, I wouldn’t say no! But I think the thing with me, and a lot of creative types, is that whatever we achieve it eventually still doesn’t feel like enough, you know? You’ll have the “well, this is nice, but it’s not…” conversation with yourself at any time, really. So I think I have to stick with the basics – if I can do this for a living, and get to keep telling stories, that’s success.
And a few fun questions:
What’s the best Scottish Gaelic word you know?
Poch ma hon. (That’s the answer, not a response to the question!) Technically not a word, but it’s my favourite Gaelic phrase.
Who would you rather share a pub lunch with; Gillian Anderson, Wes Anderson or Pamela Anderson?
Unquestionably Gillian. Loved the X-Files and she was great in American Gods. Wes Anderson’s films don’t really do it for me, I’m afraid, and for all that Pamela Anderson used to be ‘Anderson-Lee’, I think that is the beginning and end of what we might have in common.
What’s your drink of choice for reading a book in the evening?
Single malt. Preferably Lagavulin or another Islay. Alternatively, a good rioja.
How many books are on your TBR?
Including the one I’m currently reading, about 30. And that’s only the ones I’ve bought! I’m actually a very slow reader. I read in bed at night and therefore often doze off after just one chapter. I probably only get through about a dozen books a year, at best. I’m going to have to pick up the pace!
If less book reading time means more book writing time then that’s all good by me!
A massive thankyou to Justin for the interview and being an all round great guy! It’s been a pleasure.
Twitter – @authorjla